Sony's Aibo Turns "Newshound"

Sony’s popular electronic dog Aibo has turned “newshound” (as Wireless Watch Japan’s Gail Nakada amusingly put it.) In the latest iteration announced Thursday, Sony has given the 6-year-old electronic pet (model ERS-7M3) the ability to read news headlines and even to write its own blog.

Loaded with a version of an RSS newsreader, Aibo’s owner can select his or her own Web sites or blogs – so long as they are written in RSS – for the Aibo to read aloud.

“With one simple voice command Aibo can read the morning’s headline news while its owner folds the laundry,” noted Toshi Kawai, senior manager of Entertainment Robot America (ERA), a division of Sony Electronics, in a press release.

As for blogging, Sony has equipped the new Aibo with a “diary” feature that enables the robot dog to take photos and record short comments about the day’s activities. These can then be uploaded to a blog site on the Internet.

The new model Aibo can also say more than 1,000 English words, and in a nod to multi-culturalism, about 30 Spanish words and phrases such as sientate (sit down), ven aqui (come here), and buen perro (good dog).

The new Aibo will list for $1999. For the most complete third-party review, see PC Magazine’s “The New Aibo Converses.”

NHK Seeks Fee Delinquents Among Screening Attendees

In a sign of just how desperate Japan’s public broadcaster has become, NHK has begun mining the lists of those who seek to attend live October screenings of two popular children’s programs to learn the whereabouts of those not paying mandatory licensing fees, according to a report in The Asahi Shimbun.

The fees, which are required of all households owning at least one television, make up 96.4 percent of NHK’s total revenues. However, in the last year a growing number of Japanese has refused to pay in protest over a string of embezzlement scandals and allegations that NHK bowed to political pressure to censor a controversial documentary.

Viewers who seek to attend the screenings of the shows are chosen by lottery. NHK says it will use the contact information they provide to locate those who are not paying their licensing fees. However, it will not prevent those in violation from attending the screenings.

As of the end of July, the number of households refusing to pay licensing fees had risen to 1.17 million.

Last week, NHK revealed that as much as 30 percent of those who owe viewer licensing fees (including those who refuse to pay, those who have deferred payment, and those who haven’t even signed up to pay) are delinquent in their payments. NHK estimates that it could see a loss of around 50 billion yen ($441 million) in the fiscal year ending March 2006.

Also last week, NHK approved a special plan to restore its finances and improve its credibility, which included taking legal action against those who didn’t pay the user fees as well as conducting layoffs amounting to 10 percent of its workforce. (See JMR’s report, “NHK’s Revival Plan Lays Off 10 Percent of Workforce.”)

Nippon TV to Broadcast Tape Recovered from 1991 Eruption

Nippon Television Network plans to broadcast newly restored video footage taken by an NTV cameraman just before he was overtaken by a fast-moving pyroclastic flow of hot gas, ash and rock let loose in the 1991 eruption of Mt. Unzen, an active volcano on the southern island of Kyushu.

According to news reports in the Yomiuri and Mainichi newspapers, the six minutes of footage, including both video and audio, were discovered this past June. It was found in a hut located in an area closed to the public, and authorities were alerted to its existence with an anonymous phone call. Camera equipment from three other media companies was also found there.

The NTV footage will be broadcast just after midnight on Oct. 17 as part of a documentary called “378-Second Testament.”

The Mainichi Shimbun describes the video like this:

“The footage begins with the sound of rain. At the time, the press corps was photographing approximately four kilometers from the summit. At 3:57 p.m., just before the pyroclastic flow was thought to have begun at 4:08, the camera captures a rapidly expanding cloud of black smoke. ‘This is incredible,’ comes a voice from the press corps. ‘Volcanic ash is surrounding us. There is a sharp burning smell,’ a TV reporter begins to say. ‘Are you getting it on camera?’ ‘Yeah, I’m getting it.’ And then you hear a policeman say three times, ‘This is extremely dangerous. Please get out of here.’ The camera captures a raincoat clad Mainichi Shimbun cameraman (the late Tsutomu Ishizu) heading towards the mountain. Then just after 4:08, the camera suddenly points to the ground and stops.”

Lava first started emerging from Mt. Unzen in May 1991 and the Japanese government took steps to evacuate local villagers. But tragedy ensued when a sudden pyroclastic flow on June 3 shot out 4.5 kilometers from the crater, burning 180 houses and claiming the lives of 43 reporters, film crew members and scientists observing the eruption.

Notes University of California, Davis geology Professor Richard Cowen:

“Three volcanologists were killed: Maurice and Katia Krafft, who had produced spectacular films and books on volcanoes, often by risking their lives very close to eruptions; and Harry Glicken, an American expert on Mt. St. Helens, who would have been sensitively aware of the dangers of pyroclastic flows. Glicken had in fact the week before compared Mt. Unzen with Mt. Pele, the dangerous volcano on Martinique. It is clear that most of the people killed understood the danger, and chose to accept it. They were in the evacuated ‘forbidden zone’ when they were killed.”

The camera belonged to the late Koji Kobayashi, then 26. The camera was destroyed in the explosion, even the inside filling with volcanic ash. Despite being deformed by the heat, some 70 percent of the exposed video and all of the audio were restored.

NTV has shown the footage to the survivors and obtained their permission to release it. It says it is releasing the footage in the hopes that it might help prevent a similar tragedy in the future.